Sermon from Greg Jarrell: “Flesh Matters”

Posted on Jul 3, 2012 in Sermons

July 1, 2012
Christian Practices Series
Luke 24:1-12, 36-43
1 Corinthians 6:12-20

“Flesh Matters”

The people of Israel have always known that the human body was a sacred
possession, the only way that we have into life with God. God’s formation of
the human from clay into an enfleshed spirit is the simple evidence we need
to know that flesh matters. God would not have created flesh if it were not
important. Much of the “Law of Moses” is given over to regulating how we
treat the flesh we are given, and the flesh of those around us. So important
is this Torah to the identity of the people Israel that it takes up pages
and pages of our Bibles, governing how we relate to our flesh. A favorite
theologian of mine, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School, likes to
recount that a Jewish colleague of his from his time on the faculty at Notre
Dame used to say, “Any religion that does not tell you what to do with your
genitals and your pots and pans cannot be interesting.” This is because
flesh matters.
In the same way, one of the early debates that raged within the Christian
Church, only 100 years or so after the death of Jesus, was over whether
Jesus was really present in the flesh, hanging and dying on the cross. The
Gnostics, an early splinter group who became known as heretics, liked to
insist that the physical realities of the world – especially suffering and
death – could be escaped by some secret knowledge. Against them was
Irenaeus, the first great theologian of the Church, who argued that flesh
matters. That if Jesus did not really suffer, really die, and really rise
from the dead, then Christian life was not true. Irenaeus set the tenor for
the entirety of Christian theology to this day by showing us that flesh does
in fact matter. The later confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully
human that follows from Irenaeus is one of our most important doctrines.
Flesh still matters, and it matters when we have too much of it! This is
what Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Hernando,
Mississippi proclaimed to his congregation. “Some of ya’ll used to look down
and see your feet, but now you look down and see your belly button,” he
said. And so, he banned fried chicken from all church dinners. No fried
chicken is to be prepared in the kitchen, and none brought to the church
potlucks. After a moment of incredulity, the congregation has adopted his
change, and even went a step further by putting in a walking track around
the parking lot for use by members and visitors.
We have been walking through a series on Christian practices of faith, and
this week we continue with honoring the body. Each week we have asked you to
do something slightly out of the ordinary, at least out of the ordinary for
our usual worship service. Today, I am going to shock you by doing something
terribly ordinary: a three-point sermon. This is the way most preachers were
taught through the 20th century, a way that became conventional for the
proclamation of a sermon, a way of preaching that I have consciously and
intentionally avoided every single time I have written a sermon for the past
decade. But these are three really good points: In the context of Christian
practice, honoring the body means caring for the body of the individual,
caring for the bodies of others, and caring for the body of Christ. All
three are of equal importance because flesh matters.

Honoring the body means, immediately and importantly, honoring your own
body. For you as an individual, for me as an individual, we learn to
appreciate the gift of flesh that God has given uniquely to each of us. This
starts, in some ways, with the mirrors that you saw on your way in to the
sanctuary. That mirror displayed, when you looked in it, one of the ways
that God shows God’s glory in the world. God made you beautiful. Even when
you just woke up, hair in a rat’s nest, hadn’t even thought about make-up,
stumbling around the house in your unmentionables groping for the shower,
God made you beautiful. Claim it, people of God, because your flesh matters.
We have long had ways of caring for this flesh God has given us. One is the
practice of adorning our bodies. Ya’ll don’t just show up at church wearing
any old thing. I love to see you in bonnets, in bright colors. On Pentecost
Sunday in your red. We use our bodies to express ourselves, through making
some our own clothes, by wearing that special gift given us by a friend or a
child, even by being plain so as not to draw attention to ourselves. We
recognize that our bodies are unique vessels given to us by God, and we
present them as such.
We also bathe ourselves. We are careful to guard against too much dirt or
potentially offensive smells. During the period of bathing, we stand
vulnerable, unclothed, and take a few moments to care for our skin. For
those following in the way of Jesus, the water surrounding us has the
potential to remind us of our baptism – those sacred moments when we were
born into a new family, sprinkled or dunked into the waters of a new birth,
washed by the water from the side of Christ.
And we eat. What we eat, how we eat, and who we eat with tell us a bit about
ourselves. We can honor our bodies by making good food choices. We can honor
God by making food choices that enhance creation rather than destroy it. We
can promote the health that God has given us – and to a certain extent,
combat the illness that infects our bodies from time to time – by our food
choices. What we put in our bodies matters because flesh matters, and those
things we eat become part of us.
Honoring the body means honoring your own body. There are many ways you can
do that – by feeding it well, by adorning it, by bathing it, and by claiming
what a beautiful creation God made you.

Honoring the body also requires honoring the body of the other. Just as you
are an enfleshed spirit, so is your neighbor. We have learned many ways of
honoring the body of another. Just a few moments ago, we took time to shake
hands with and hug one another in exchanging a sign of peace. Greeting or
welcoming someone almost always requires some acknowledgement of their
flesh. A hand shake, a hug, a fist bump, or some other contact is a way of
bringing the other into your world and you into theirs.
There are other thresholds into honoring the body of the other. One is
through the gift of sexuality. In the context of a sacred covenant
relationship, sex rightly used is a way of honoring the body of the other to
whom you are joined. Good sex fulfills desire, draws us into the arms of
another. It both creates and reflects intimacy between two bodies. It is one
of our most powerful demonstrations of the fact that flesh matters. And, it
doesn’t hurt that it will get your heart rate up as well. (The tremendously
destructive potential of sex is a glimpse into how deeply flesh matters as
well. Those who have suffered abuse can testify that bodies can be used to
destroy rather than to create intimacy, and that bodies so used can create
wounds that may never heal.)
Bodies can also honor an other by being offered in protection. Who has not
been in a car when a mother slamming on the brakes throws her arm in front
of her child in the passenger seat, offering her own body as a feeble but
instinctive line of protection? Consider those that have donated a kidney or
bone marrow to someone in need of a transplant. Such an act is a tremendous
act of honoring the body of another, with little regard for the short- or
long-term effects of that act. In the face of danger, any of us would place
our bodies between a threat and a child, using our own flesh to care for the
flesh of another.
It is in honoring the bodies of others that we begin to learn that our
bodies are not our own. They, like all of creation, are gifts of God
destined to return to God. As we glimpse ourselves in the mirror and see a
body to be honored, we must make the next, inevitable conclusion: that if my
body was fearfully and wonderfully made, then so was everyone else’s. I
cannot honor my body fully unless I am using it to honor the bodies of
others. I cannot fulfill God’s design for my body unless I am using it to
show that all flesh matters: that if I eat, I need also to feed the hungry;
that if I bathe, then I ought to cleanse and bandage a vulnerable person;
that I can and should be touching the untouchable; that every person
deserves a relative sense of security in their place in the same way that I
have, whether they are Syrian, Palestinian, Afghani, Iraqi, or a child of
the inner-cities of America. Honoring the body means honoring all bodies,
including, and especially, those of our enemies and those who are most
vulnerable to the powers of the world.

Which brings us around to the third point, that honoring the body means
honoring the body of Christ. Learning that flesh matters reminds us of the
One who took on flesh to show us the Way. It is in following Jesus, God
become flesh, that we learn to love others as we love ourselves. It is in
the death of Jesus that we learn that such love may cost us. It is in the
resurrection of Jesus that we learn how deeply flesh matters. Our flesh is
temporal and will eventually die, but that does not mean that it is of no
import, because our flesh is also eternal. This is why we confess that we
believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Flesh
matters, bodies matter, and Jesus shows us that today.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asks. “He is not
here.” He is alive, in the flesh. He appears, not as a ghost, but alive. A
real man. “Touch me and see,” he says. They give him a hot dog and a pack of
nabs, and he eats it! He shows them his hands and his feet, pierced. His
side is revealed, through which the water of our baptism flowed. Jesus’
flesh, like yours and mine, matters.
And if his body matters, then we must preserve it. We must continue to
gather around the Table of our Lord and proclaim that his flesh matters. We
proclaim that his flesh is broken, and by its brokenness we are being
healed. But, we must be careful not to break it further. We must guard our
unity and proclaim that we will continue to share of the same body and cup
of our Lord, even though we do not always see eye to eye. We cannot avoid
conflict, but we can avoid division. We can learn to love and honor one
another even as we make one another angry. We can honor the other even as we
do not understand him or her. We can insist on being reconciled one to
another, even when that seems most unpleasant. We can refuse to pierce again
the side of Christ by insisting that the community gathered around his table
is our ultimate reality.
And that finally, is who we are as Christians. To follow in the way of Jesus
is to proclaim with all of our being that flesh matters, and that it is the
flesh of Jesus that sets our course. We gather around the table of Jesus
each week to take a piece of bread and insist that it is not really bread,
but the flesh of the God-man who died 2000 years ago. Surely this would seem
absurd to a stranger who walks in without knowing our custom in doing so.
But our proclamation is that no matter how strange this may seem from the
outside, that our doing so constitutes what is really real. No matter what
else may claim our allegiance – country club, alma mater, nation-state,
telephone company, family, or otherwise – the community gathered around
God’s table is the place where we really belong.
Your flesh matters. Your neighbor’s flesh matters. Jesus’s flesh matters.
And in Jesus’s flesh, we join with all those who have gone before us and go
beside us – Irenaeus, Augustine, Annette Dickie, Martin Luther, Don
Mottesheard, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Bower, and the whole communion of
saints gathered around the body of Jesus in praise of God. Come, then, and
let us join our flesh together in praise of the one who appears in the flesh
and says to all his disciples, “Peace be with you.” Amen.

Prayer:
Soul of Christ, sanctify us;
Body of Christ, save us;
Blood of Christ, inebriate us;
Water from the side of Christ, wash us;
Passion of Christ, strengthen us.
O good Jesus, hear us;
Within your wounds hide us;
Suffer us not to be separated from you;
>From the malicious enemy, defend us;
In the hour of our death, call us,
And bid us come to you;
That with your saints we may praise you forever and ever. Amen.